Northwestern University sells out

The late Mike Royko once suggested that Chicago should change its motto from Urbs in horto (City in a garden) to Ubi est mea? (Where’s mine?).

Northwestern University, in Evanston

In the same vein, Northwestern University should change its motto from Quaecumque sunt vera (Whatsoever things are true) to Justitia condemnabitur (Justice be damned).

I say that in light of Eric Zorn’s column headlined “In fight for the truth, Northwestern surrenders” in Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune, detailing what Zorn aptly deems the university’s “shameful capitulation” in settling a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of Alstory Simon.

In case you have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, Simon is the guy who repeatedly and credibly confessed to the 1982 slayings of Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green — a crime for which another guy, Anthony Porter, once came within two days of execution.

Porter’s false conviction and near-death experience for murdering the young couple prompted Governor George H. Ryan to declare a moratorium on Illinois executions in 2000, and was instrumental in the Illinois General Assembly’s sensible decision to abolish capital punishment in 2011.

As Zorn reports, Paul Ciolino, a private investigator working with a team of Northwestern journalism students led by former Professor David Protess, obtained Simon’s confession in 1999 and Porter was free, two days later.

In September 1999, Simon pleaded guilty to the double murder, apologizing on the record to Green’s mother: “It was an accident that your daughter got shot. I never meant to hurt her. Never meant to do it. Never meant her no harm at all. I had things between Jerry and I (sic). And when the shots started she just, she was coming past and happened to got (sic) in the way when the shot went off. Before I realized it I had already squeezed the trigger, she was trying to stop me coming at Jerry.”

While false confessions generally are a well-known phenomenon, they almost invariably are recanted promptly, usually only a day or so later. Simon’s in-court confession, thus, coming as it did seven months after he confessed to Ciolino, strongly corroborated its veracity, but further corroboration was to come.

From the Joliet Correctional Center Simon wrote a letter abjectly apologizing to Porter: “I’m truly sorry that you had to undergo such a psychological turmoil. . . . I sincerely hope that you can be able to repair your life back in society.”

In addition, Simon also wrote several letters to Jack Rimland, an attorney who had volunteered to represent him at the behest of Ciolino and Protess. One letter said: “How are you old friend. I sincerely hope you are fine. As for me I’m okay thus far. . . . Take care and thank you Jack from the bottom of my heart.”

In November 1999, two and a half months after he was sentenced to 37 years in prison, WISN-TV in Milwaukee aired an on-camera interview in which Simon said that he had been unaware of Porter’s plight until informed of it by Ciolino. “That’s when I decided that I was not going to let this man die for something that he did not do.” Referring to Hillard, Simon said: “The guy had fell (sic) into a huge debt with me, but it still didn’t give me no reason to kill him for it.”

Finally, in a letter dated May 1, 2000, Simon sought new counsel, claiming that he had not been effectively represented by Rimland but reiterating: “I never meant to hurt anyone, yet alone kill anyone. I was only defending myself from a young man who was trying to kill me and another person was killed by accident.”

On the strength of Simon’s myriad confessions, which remained consistent over 15 months — from February 3, 1999, to May 1, 2000 — his belated assertion of innocence simply seemed implausible.

Nonetheless, after lawyers friendly to law enforcement had alleged that Protess and Ciolino has conspired to frame Simon — “a right-wing paranoid fantasy worthy of Alex Jones,” as Zorn puts it — Simon was freed in 2014 at the urging of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

In doing that, Alvarez defied the recommendation of her top assistants, who, after an extensive review, had concluded that there was not “sufficient evidence to seek to vacate Simon’s convictions.”

The federal suit brought on Simon’s behalf sought $40 million. The amount for which Northwestern settled the case is secret under the agreement. But whatever the amount, the university has disgraced itself.

Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch. Decades ago, Warden worked with Protess on two wrongful conviction cases and with Ciolino on the case of a day care operator falsely accused of sexually assaulting children in her care.